Empathy Versus Hate in a Diverse World

Good afternoon, everyone. What an inspiring opening to today’s celebration! Thank you to the Elders for their drumming.

My wife Ginette and I are thrilled and honoured to participate in the University of Victoria’s 2013 Diversity Research Forum. We enjoyed tremendously our visit last year to your beautiful campus. Looking around the room, I’m happy to see some of you who showed us around and made us feel so welcome. The campus of the University of Victoria stands out as a model of diversity and harmony, in its architectural design, in its innovative programs and in its forward approach to learning and inclusion.

The program for this forum touches on a rich variety of important topics and themes. It also touches on values that resonate with who I am as a human being, as a Canadian and as a Senator.

I want to share with you the work that I do as a member of the Canadian Senate. My role is two-fold. I am a legislator. I review, study and apply “sober-second thought” to bills passed in the House of Commons. I sit as a member of the Senate Aboriginal committee. I am also a promoter and protector of minority rights. I have gained insights into how our society and our federal government work. As a legislator, it is the vigilant eye that I put in practice. As a promoter of rights, I aspire to be an agent of change with others on common causes.

Canadians like to believe that people around the world recognize us for our cohesive society, our shared values and our diversity.

I am struck by the confluence of political events in the last few days and weeks triggering a new level of public consciousness, public debate and language on the values of fairness, justice, equality of opportunities and the great potential of diversity. From the eloquence of President Obama in his inaugural speech calling for a fair and equitable society for all, to the calls of Idle No More to fix the inequities and the relationships with First Nations, to last weekend’s election of Kathleen Wynne as Premier Designate of Ontario, these reflect the transformation we are undergoing.

Our society is entering another phase, opening the door further to the potential of diversity. This is making people talk, debate and understand. And this is happening amidst rapid changes in technology that are changing how we learn and relate to one another. Last Sunday’s New York Times carried an article by Thomas Friedman on the changing face of university teaching and the opportunities for online learning– at a global level with astounding numbers of students the world over, at MIT as an example.

These are significant events in their own right – and in their potential effect on us. Either we build on them with understanding and willingness to adapt, or we don’t – and lose out on the opportunities of a greater, more diverse society.

Canadians have to make the right choices. These events place rights, inclusion, equality and diversity on a new level of national and international action. They invite citizens to explore the why of their fears, their discomforts and prejudices. They push us to reach a greater depth of honesty where we can find the courage to take the next concrete step toward a fairer, more equitable society, a society where empathy enlightens us, where as citizens we use our ability to reach beyond ourselves and connect with other people.

If properly nurtured, Canada’s diversity can truly become its strength. I believe this as do most Canadians.
It’s time to address inequities and obstacles that hinder Canadians from living fully, according to their wishes and rights. It’s time to take to act, to set things right:

• Making sure that children and people with disabilities have access to the right support and services;

• Ensuring that Aboriginal children have equal access to quality education;

• Protecting young people, particularly those who are gay, from bullying;

• Bringing health and education standards and services for Aboriginal communities to the same levels as other Canadians.

Inequities are alive and well and, in a country as prosperous as Canada, this should not be so. It is scandalous that we are stuck there.

Diversity in Canada today is faltering. As public opinion polls constantly measure Canadians feelings about issues and changes, one could conclude that prejudices and misunderstandings are very real. Look at Canadians’ reactions to Idle No More. Recent polls point out that a majority of Canadians either don’t understand the goals of the Idle No More movement or disagree with them.

In 2007, the federal Policy Research Initiative produced a report titled From Mosaic to Harmony: Multicultural Canada in the 21st Century. It is based on roundtable discussions held in regions across the country – and, though it is specifically about multiculturalism, it provides a wealth of insight equally relevant to the broader subject of diversity in this country.

One striking comment from this source is this: “… multiculturalism has become an easy target for failings and challenges resulting from other policies.” The same can also be said for diversity. If you need proof of this, just cast your eyes on what has been happening on Parliament Hill in recent years. Under our current government, there has been a gradual chipping away of provisions supporting diversity and its grounding principles of equality, respect, human rights and full participation.

The Court Challenges Program was created in 1978 to provide funds to test court cases that clarified rights of official language minorities. When the Charter of Rights and Freedoms took effect in 1985, it expanded to cover equality rights as well.

The program ensured that a modest amount of public funds would be available to help individuals pursue Charter challenges in the courts. Many human rights issues were examined as a result of this program, enabling our courts to clarify the provisions of the Charter. To appreciate the significance of this small but powerful program, consider some of its legal achievements:

• Confirming that Canadians accused of a crime can have a trial in their own language;

• Reaffirming the right of official language minority groups to manage their own school boards and to higher education in their mother tongue;

• Helping homosexual couples achieve equality protection, including secure spousal benefits;

• Confirming that aboriginal Canadians living off reserve have the right to vote in band elections; and

• Assisting seniors to secure employment insurance benefits, women to win pay equity cases and disabled groups to fight VIA Rail for the right to accessible trains.

In 2006, our federal government cancelled the Court Challenges Program. Though it partially restored its official languages minority component in 2008, the new program is severely truncated. It no longer supports equality challenges.

If you’re wondering why the government decided to kill the Court Challenges Program, consider some of its opponents: The President of Canadian Christian College and Canada Family Action Coalition, Stephen Harper and other Conservatives, who criticized the program for favouring liberal causes.

In a 2000 issue of the REAL Women newsletter, this statement was published: “The federal Court Challenges Program continues to churn out generous grants to homosexual activists and feminists to assist them in their attack on traditional values in Canada.”

How I’d liked to ask Stephen Harper this famous question coined by playwright Lillian Hellman: “Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?”

What is his government demonstrating when it so shamelessly appoints a man who cannot communicate in French to the important, federal position of Auditor General? An Auditor General reports to Parliament and should be able to do so in both official languages.

What is the government conveying when it pushes through a budget bill with components that directly impact First Nations’ treaty and human rights? Without proper consultation or debate with First Nations people, the Conservative government changed environmental protections for waterways under the Navigable Waters Act and the Indian Act.

How do these actions impact francophone Canadians? First Nations people? All Canadians?

Experience has taught me that no battle is insignificant. I have to be vigilant at all times and in the face of any bill – whether a massive, controversial government bill or a backdoor private member’s bill.

Last fall, Bill C-304, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act (protecting freedom) arrived in the Senate for consideration. It was a private member’s bill aimed at removing Section 13 of the Human Rights Act. This provision made it a discriminatory practice to communicate on the Internet or other telecommunications device any matter likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for which a pardon has been granted.

As it had made its way through our legislative process, its proponents had successfully marketed it as an important step in the name of freedom of expression. One of my Conservative colleagues supporting the bill downplayed its human rights implications, insisting: “If you find an idea stupid, it’s your right to ignore it. If you find a joke offensive, it’s your right to disregard it. Even statements one might find intolerable or heinously out-of-line with reality deserve the opportunity to be heard and ignored.”

The mere reference to freedom of expression sparks in me an instinct to rise in its defence. I was a journalist for over 30 years after all. I covered events throughout the world – including undemocratic countries where citizens are killed for expressing their thoughts. I covered the massacre in Tiananmen Square. I am profoundly grateful to live in a country where freedom of expression is guaranteed by law. But defending the right to speak and promoting hate are two very different matters.

But when I read the content of Bill C-304, I turned to the wisdom and arguments on both sides of the issue and I arrived at some strong and worrisome conclusions, like these:

• Canada and its citizens need laws to prohibit the publication of hateful statements that create risk of hatred and violence directed at vulnerable groups. The risk itself is an affront to human dignity.

• We have a duty to reflect on what it is to be subjected to hatred on the basis of whatever we are – and to prevent that abuse from happening.

Proponents of the bill had built their arguments around a false definition of freedom of expression: That it is an absolute right. As the Huffington Post reported last spring, they were not the only ones regarding the passage of this bill as a victory for freedom of expression. “It [was] also being cheered most vocally by another group: White Supremacists.”

Freedom of expression is not an absolute right. It comes with responsibilities.

Those parliamentarians supporting Bill C-304 contorted facts and rejected advice from reliable sources, including the Canadian Bar Association. They stomped right over jurisprudence as though the constitutionality of Section 13 had never been tried – when, in fact, the Supreme Court of Canada had previously found that the provision was indeed a reasonable limit and acknowledged its important objective. “It can thus be concluded that messages of hate propaganda undermine the dignity and self-worth of target group members and, more generally, contribute to disharmonious relations among various racial, cultural and religious groups, as a result eroding the tolerance and open-mindedness that must flourish in a multi-cultural society which is committed to the idea of equality.”

Supporters of Bill C-304 had one agenda: Get it passed at any cost. Their tactics and singular focus polarized debate, and distracted parliamentarians from attending to what was really at stake. Speaking in 2009 on “Human Rights and History’s Judgment”, Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella made this pertinent remark: “…we must never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable.”

In his 1990 judgment on Section 13, former Chief Justice Brian Dickson drew from the wisdom expressed 25 years before, in 1965, by the Special Committee on Hate Propaganda in Canada. “… individuals subjected to racial or religious hatred may suffer substantial psychological distress, the damaging consequences including a loss of self-esteem, feelings of anger and outrage and strong pressure to renounce cultural differences that mark them as distinct. This intensely painful reaction undoubtedly detracts from an individual’s ability to, in the words of s.2 of the [Canadian Human Rights Act], ‘make for himself or herself the life that he or she is able and wishes to have.’”

The consequences of discriminatory hatred are as personal as they are societal. They scar. They enrage. They damage individuals.

They undermine the trust and confidence of citizens in one another and their country. They create factions and spark violence. They reduce us all.

The title of my speech to you today is “Empathy Versus Hate in a Diverse World.”

I guess I’ve covered the hate part pretty well, so I’ll move into that opposite human capacity – the stronger one: Empathy.

When the organizers of this forum invited me, they suggested I speak a bit about my experiences as an advocate for the rights of children – and, specifically, children with autism. I am grateful for the encouragement to reflect on my life in this way, from the moment I first realized that I wanted to make a positive difference in others’ lives.

I was in Cambodia in 1991, assigned to cover a story on an orphanage created by a Canadian woman named Naomi Bernstein. She was a children’s aid worker and a humanitarian who had made it her life’s work to protect and ensure the safety of thousands of vulnerable children in some of the harshest corners of the world.

Most of the children at this orphanage were so severely disabled that they would certainly never have survived without the shelter and care provided by Naomi and the volunteers who worked there.

First laying eyes on the children, getting to know them and learning what that place and the people who cared for them represented in their lives – there were moments when I was completely overcome with emotion – sadness and compassion for their helplessness. Because I knew their country did not want them. Amazement at the love that Naomi and the volunteers had for these vulnerable little people.

The poignancy of all this seized me. I had a revelation. I realized that I could help these and other children who, due to circumstances of injustice and misfortune, were acutely vulnerable to discrimination and hate.

The greatest gift a journalist can give to those in jeopardy is a voice!!! – a way to bring attention to their struggles and possibly awaken a social desire to lend a hand. This is what I set out to do.

My appointment to the Senate enabled me to continue this role from a different platform. I regard the honour of being a senator as an opportunity to promote the rights of minorities, to pursue special interests and to work with communities of amazing people committed to leveling barriers to equality.

It’s been 10 years since my eyes were first opened to autism – how difficult life can be for people affected by autism. It began with a chance encounter. As I was walking up the Hill to my office, my eyes were somehow drawn to a man who was quietly “protesting”, for lack of a better word, for support for his autistic son. I stopped to listen to what he had to say about his life:

• his son’s need for constant care. The financial costs and the pressures to meet those costs.

• the scarcity of support and resources.

• the anxiety and the isolation.

These experiences were not exclusive to this young father. I understood this. They were and are still the experiences of thousands of families affected by autism.

That encounter was yet another awakening for me. I wanted to find out more about this disorder. I wanted to help autistic children and their families.

Though in those first years public awareness about autism was generally very low, my efforts to change that were typically met with wonderful receptivity on the Hill.

The Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology responded to my insistence and undertook a lengthy, comprehensive study. In March 2007, the committee released its report on that study, Pay Now or Pay Later – Autism Families in Crisis.

Autism advocates across Canada applauded the report’s recommendations, particularly the call for the federal government to develop a national autism strategy. This goal has been a significant catalyst for Canada’s autism network to pull together to ensure their collective voice is heard – by governments, by the thousands of families weighed down by the difficult characteristics of autism, and by society at large.

Public awareness of autism has heightened manifold since those early days of my involvement. Social realities have changed and continue to change. Every year, the rate of children with an autism spectrum disorder continues to rise.

I am not an expert in any aspect of autism. I just do what I can to raise the profile of issues and guide people on the workings of government and how to present their causes to our national decision-makers. I am a communicator and a connector. I tell stories that shed light on the challenges that people face. I strive to be a bridge-builder.

As I reflect on my role as a Senator and examine how I can in my position and with others influence positive and lasting change, I have been searching to understand why people have such different takes on our society, such different perspectives. And why people are in conflict. How do we open the doors to differences, how do we encourage greater understanding, how can we bring people together, other than by legislation or through the justice process?

As we try to find approaches to resolve the misunderstandings, the confrontations and conflicts, we are guided by the head – the rational – the laws, legislation and precedents, and too often overlook the other potential pathways to understanding. We have trouble “having the conversation” because we are missing the heart!!! At the core of conflict resolution is the clash of polarized positions. The path to resolution needs to go through the steps of mutual understanding.

How do we do that? We use our capacity for reaching to the other. We use the power of empathy. We develop empathy. We use the language of empathy.

What I personally experienced from my ongoing relationship with the autism community is that empathy has enabled us to break down barriers. Even the humblest of efforts, like the protest of one man on the Hill, can lead to significant outcomes. The improvements we want to see in the lives of people touched by autism might not come as quickly or in precisely the forms we would expect, but we are making inroads. The system we are constantly enhancing to address the autism crisis is reaching the doors of our federal government. And one day we will open the doors wider to a National Autism Spectrum Disorder Strategy.

It seems that people are waking up to the potential of using the power of empathy.

President Obama certainly got people talking about empathy in 2009, when he said that it is one of the qualities he would seek in a Supreme Court Justice:

“I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook; it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives, whether they can make a living and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation… I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.”

Through its resources and guidance on social entrepreneurship, Ashoka Changemakers demonstrates how empathy can bring about positive change and transformation within organizations and society. As you probably know already, Ashoka partners have contributed to the launch of some wonderful innovations within several British Colombia communities. These include BC Ideas, on online competition for social innovations. Winners receive a significant cash prize – called an Innovation Investment – to move their ideas forward. One past winner is Living Innovation Venture, that creates community mapping for people with disabilities.

Exploring principles and strategies related to empathy, Ashoka believes that, “science increasingly shows that we as humans are wired for empathy. But as with any innate capacity, it only flourishes if we nurture it. Empathy can be learned, but mastery takes practice.”

One pioneer of empathy learning is a wonderful Newfoundlander, Mary Gordon. She founded the program Roots of Empathy to teach elementary school children about their feelings and the feeling of others as they spend time with a mother and her baby during monthly visitors to their classrooms. Students sit in a circle, observing and reacting to the baby’s expressions and efforts to gain coordination and mobility.

The experience enables students to understand their connectedness with the baby and with one another. They demonstrate compassion and enthusiastically encourage the baby to realize goals.

Evidence abounds that empathy leads to better understanding, trust, mutual respect, cooperation and collective action. As we have seen, it has powerful implications for justice, business, education and social advocacy.

In the end, empathy is what helps understand what it feels like:

• to be the object of discrimination;

• to be excluded;

• to face barriers everyday.

It is only when we can feel the challenges of others:

• that we can act;

• that policy makers and social entrepreneurs can innovate;

• that storytellers tell stories that need to be told.

Empathy is far more than a catchphrase of our times. For many years now, it is empathy that has been my driving force.

It is empathy that will help us shape this country to realize “the hopes we have for children, economic security, health and well-being and respect for others.” These hopes transcend all differences. Let us all do our part to create an environment where diversity can help us define and create a better and richer Canada.

Thank you.